No Halloween Ghost, Freed Slave James Brown Walks Again in New York's Hudson Valley

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When James F. Brown ran away from his Baltimore owners in 1828, he sent them a letter outlining the reasons why. "No man of integrity can provide for his family within the limitations of slavery," he wrote. It was an indication of all he was to achieve during a long life that included the social upheaval of the Civil War.

I totally believed he was in the time

Now James F. Brown, as interpreted by actor Michael Monasterial, returns regularly to Mount Gulian Historic Site , the Dutch colonial homestead where he worked for 40 years. The Hudson Valley historic site presents From Slave to Mr. Brown, living history afternoons featuring Brown and his employer Mary Anna Verplanck as they were in 1848.

The pair interact with visitors as they are welcomed to the estate as guests or interviewed for farm and household positions by Brown. In the process, much is revealed about life in the 19th century and Brown's character and standing in the community.

"It's fabulous," Pat Gallie of Beacon said after one of the programs. "I totally believed he (Monasterial) was in the time."

William Puswald, 14, of Beacon, found it surprising that an African American in mid-19th century America "could be so successful in the north."

"Brown kept diaries for 40 years," Mount Gulian Historic Site Executive Director Elaine Hayes explained. "That's how we know that he returned to Baltimore to purchase his wife's freedom, bought his own home in Beacon and as a result of owning property, was able to vote in local and national elections."    

Brown, serving at a Verplanck dinner party, was almost returned to slavery when one of the guests recognized him as a runaway. The Verplanck family purchased his freedom and he decided to work for them for the rest of his life, achieving regional respect as a horticulturist, and ultimately serving as the estate's personnel manager.

"Mary Anna was a strong character in her own right," Hayes said. "She never married, choosing to run her family's estate. Despite her wealth and privilege, she was never considered a full citizen of this country. She was never able to vote as James did."

Monasterial, who has appeared on stage and television, believes he shares common ground with Brown. "I'm a carpenter doing physical labor. You look at life differently when you work like that. Brown would feel the aches and pains of a life of working hard, and he'd know the satisfaction of doing a good job."

Jean Moss portrays Mary Anna Verplanck, bringing confident composure to the role. Historically correct improvisation, necessary to answer visitor questions, is unlike anything she's done before as an actor, however.

"My other roles were based on fictional characters. I've never had a role as challenging," she said.    

Bringing living history to Mount Gulian was a 15-year process, inspired by Brown's compelling story and a visit by Hayes to the Tenement Museum in New York. One of the tours includes a costumed interpreter in the role of a 14-year old who lived in the tenement in 1916.

Once Hayes secured grant funding from the NYS Council on the Arts and the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, research was conducted by Dr. Myra B. Young Armstead of Bard College. Scripts were developed in 2008, casting calls went out in June and rehearsals and costuming began in September.     

Living history interactions are slated for Sundays, Oct. 24, Nov. 7 and Feb. 20. There is one Saturday performance on Feb. 5. All programs start at 1:30 pm. Tours of the house, barn and garden, weather permitting, are included.

Special Candlelight Tours of the house will feature James and Mary Anna welcoming guests as if they were arriving for a holiday gathering in 1848. The tours will be conducted between 4 and 6 pm on Sundays, Dec. 12 and 19.

"If these programs are popular, From Slave to Mr. Brown will be scheduled regularly from April through October next year," Hayes promised.

Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and $4 for young people ages 6 through 18. Advance reservations are required for groups. For more information call 845 831-8172 or visit http://www.MountGulian.org .

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